Playing Football In A Time Of COVID-19

Players and coaches share their thoughts on playing football in the wake of the coronavirus.

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With COVID-19 present, Jon English stood out during the season. (Photo by Austin Gebhardt)

By Rick Assad

With COVID-19 still present, nothing can be taken for granted, including playing high school football.

So after Burroughs High and Burbank played five games this past spring, the goal of playing a full schedule of 10 this fall was at times a daunting challenge.

On Friday night at Memorial Field in the last Pacific League game and each school each having an opportunity to qualify for the CIF Southern Section playoffs, the Bears played their ninth game while the host Bulldogs took the field for their tenth.

If there was a star in Burroughs’ 30-20 victory, it was quarterback Jon English.

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“COVID has really put a big stress on a lot of us. It’s been more mental than anything, but we’ve gone through a lot of adversity. But we just keep striving through it,” said the senior who ran for 210 yards on 24 carries with a fumble and passed for 78 yards after hitting seven of 12 passes including two touchdowns. “We all know we just love football and we just want to play. COVID or not, we just want to play. That’s what gets us through it.”

Burbank coach Adam Colman talking with Burroughs running back Nathan Howland-Chhina after the game. (Photo by Ross A. Benson)

Wide receiver/defensive back Elijah Aldana-Pere also had a stellar outing for the Bears.

“We just had to remain humble. Stay grounded. We had to go to practice just like we always do. We knew these moments were going to come,” said the senior who had three catches for 36 yards, a 28-yard score and a 55-yard interception for a touchdown. “Testing for COVID every week was not a given. We were always on our toes. Making sure we were doing the right thing like keeping our masks on.”

Running Nathan Howland-Chhina also stood tall in the 10-point victory by Burroughs.

“It was an adversity-filled season, but we had a lot of ups and downs. There was a lot of strict stuff because of COVID, no team dinners, but we just have a great group of guys who are all like brothers, so COVID really didn’t didn’t affect us,” said the senior who carried the ball 11 times for 83 yards and a 20-yard touchdown. “We just go out here every day and we just work. We just take it week by week.”

Second-year Burroughs coach Jesse Craven oversaw the program through this unique time.

Burbank quarterback Dylan Robinson left everything on the field. (Photo by Austin Gebhardt)

“It’s about being flexible. That’s the first thing. In the spring when things were really bad, numbers wise, it was about doing the right thing first and not compromising someone’s safety to just play a game,” he said. “Luckily we got through that with no issues.”

Craven continued: “But every week you’re testing, making sure you’re being super vigilant with what you’re doing,” he said. “There were no fans. But last year we put it together in two weeks. It’s been a lot different this year. We lost our first game. Safety is the most important thing. But we have to be flexible.”

Burbank’s field leader Dylan Robinson was grateful to have played in 10 games.

“Earlier in the year it was bumpy, especially me knowing that I’m doing my part to keep it right. I was scared for my team. I was scared for my players and I was hoping they’d do their part as well and they did and they stepped up,” he said. “I am very happy about that and that allowed us to progress through the year and be safe and it allowed us to play all 10 games and I’m very grateful.”

Though Robinson, a junior, didn’t have his best game, he gave it everything he had in the loss.

“I don’t think the scheduling made it tougher, that only makes us better. The stress and the mindset that we had to bring was tough on most players,” said Robinson, who finished with 65 rushing yards on 21 carries and a fumble and completed eight of 15 for 116 yards with three picks.

Senior quarterback Jon English ran and passed for the Bears. (Photo by Austin Gebhardt)

Burbank junior wide receiver/defensive back Jagg Richer gave his assessment of what it was like playing through COVID-19.

“Honestly, this year was a lot more enjoyable. I think this team’s a lot closer than we were last year. Because we have a lot more time to be together versus COVID, we were online,” he noted. “So it was hard for us to bond. So I think this is a good thing for us because we can actually bond. This was a bunch of kids I’ve been on since Vikings. So we’re all very close. We can all talk to each other.”

Richer was pleased to have completed the regular season. “We had to worry about what we could control,” he said. “We can’t control if someone gets sick, but we could control what we did on our weekends. What we did after school. During the COVID season I know for me I never left the house if I wasn’t going to football and I rarely hung out with friends.”

Burbank senior lineman Jakob Zuniga shared his thoughts about the season and COVID-19.

“It was definitely an experience for sure. My first game was the Rose Bowl. Playing at such a big stadium even without fans. It was special. The ambiance,” he said.

Zuniga added: “The biggest thing we said as a team is we’ve got to watch each other’s backs. Everything that one person does applies to all of us. [Adam] Colman said you’re only as strong as your weakest link,” he said. “Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t do anything that’s going to get you in trouble. Being blessed to be playing nine games and about to play 10.”

Burbank coach Adam Colman feels fortunate that the team was safe and healthy throughout the campaign.

“We’ve been very lucky and very blessed to be able to play 10 full games. Two of our first three games were canceled and then rescheduled. I think everyone following the protocol, everyone staying safe is good,” he said. “Things have calmed down a bit. Vaccination rates are going up. I think it helps put everything in perspective. Adversity is a gift. It’s a chance to get better. It’s nice to have fans in the stands.”